Wish I Was in Dixie

Every man has his limit. For Taurus Barron, it came when his boss told him to park behind the Dania Beach Water Plant, where he worked as a water plant operator.

Well, OK. But why? Why behind, rather than in front of the plant, where all the white employees parked?

No reason given.

The 30-year-old African-American had worked for Dania Beach for two years, running tests, recording chemical concentrations, helping to ensure the safety of the city's water supply. He liked the job. But there had been a series of disagreements with his boss, Chief Water Treatment Plant Operator James Baker.

Barron had been written up in the plant logbook for minor mistakes, he said, the kind of missteps that white employees never got called out on. Baker had an annoying habit of referring to black employees as "you people." He refused to let Barron leave when his replacement came in early — a luxury afforded to all the white workers, Barron claimed.

"I was tired of being harassed and treated unfair by James Baker," Barron wrote. "It's stressing me out. Everyday I come to work with headaches because I'm afraid of what James is going to say or do to upset me."

For Barron, the unexplained parking requirement reeked of second-class treatment, the kind of institutional insult that Rosa Parks called a halt to in 1955 when she refused to sit in the back of that Montgomery, Alabama, bus. This was September 2006. Barron, convinced that Baker was discriminating against him, submitted his resignation.

In any other city, the contretemps between Barron and Baker might have gone unnoticed by anyone but a few bureaucrats — a distressing disagreement between two city employees, but not significant of anything larger. Sometimes, people just can't get along.

But this was Dania Beach, with a documented history of troubled race relations. The plant where Barron and Baker worked had, in the past decade, been the scene of bitter racial rifts reminiscent of the Jim Crow era: bathrooms segregated by supervisory fiat, Confederate flags displayed in defiance, the n-word barked in anger.

Though the water plant is closed to public view, its inner workings secret, some black Dania Beach residents contend that racism — like the water from the plant — continues to pump through the city at large.

There's something about Dania Beach.

The day after Barron resigned, he reconsidered. After all, a good job is hard to find, even if you have to put up with some low-grade bigotry. But he was turned down. Sorry, Barron, you resigned and you're going to have to live with your decision.

Barron decided he had no other recourse but to file a formal complaint. He went to Dania's Human Resources Department, then to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Human Resources Director Mary McDonald conducted the requisite investigation of Barron's claims. Ultimately, she refuted each of Barron's accusations with information from Baker. The parking assignment was forced by construction work, affecting Barron because he was low man on the seniority totem pole. The logbook entries had no disciplinary consequence (though Baker apologized for singling out Barron), and McDonald found no evidence of discrimination in Baker's early release policy.

In a note to Barron, McDonald wrote, "Taurus, the city takes complaints of racial discrimination quite seriously and will not tolerate it in the workplace. Based on the preliminary investigation, I am not able to conclude evidence of discrimination."

To Baker, she typed another memo. "Jim, please understand that the city has a responsibility to ensure a fair workplace, and complaints of discrimination must be investigated. I sincerely appreciate your candor and cooperation."

But as far as Barron was concerned, McDonald had taken everything Baker said as fact, and Barron wasn't settling for that. He went to the Broward County Office of Equal Opportunity, Civil Rights Division, an arm of the EEOC, which conducted its own investigation, finding evidence to refute each of McDonald's conclusions.

Employees interviewed by county investigators told the Broward Civil Rights Division that no construction had been going on when Baker made Barron park in the back, and two other black employees, Alvan Jones and Stanly Johnson, said they were inexplicably asked to do the same. Many said there was plenty of room in front. They also disputed Baker on the other points.

The EEOC investigators found the workers' stories more credible.

"There is reasonable cause to believe that an unlawful discriminatory practice has occurred based on race," wrote Earlene Striggles Horne, director of the division. Investigators also uncovered a long history of minority employees' being treated differently and quitting because they felt discriminated against.

Dania Beach hired a lawyer to assess whether the city should settle with Barron. That lawyer, Onier Llopiz, interviewed past and present employees.

There had been odd out-of-context references in McDonald's notes to racially loaded terms like segregated, noose, and nigger. Llopiz placed the words in context. Segregated referred to segregated bathrooms, which had been the policy at the water plant until at least 1996. In 1997, some white employees hung a noose in the area where most of the black employees worked. Managers conceded that they had sometimes referred to blacks as "niggers," but only in anger, they told the lawyer.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ashley Harrell
Contact: Ashley Harrell